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Woodside v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

August 30, 2019



          Alan N. Bloch, United States District Judge.

         AND NOW, this 30th day of August, 2019, upon consideration of the parties' cross motions for summary judgment, the Court, upon review of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security's final decision, denying Plaintiff's claim for disability insurance benefits under Subchapter II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq., and denying Plaintiff's claim for supplemental security income benefits under Subchapter XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq., finds that the Acting Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence and, accordingly, affirms. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Jesurum v. Sec'y of U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 48 F.3d 114, 117 (3d Cir. 1995); Williams v. Sullivan, 970 F.2d 1178, 1182 (3d Cir. 1992), cert. denied sub nom., 507 U.S. 924 (1993); Brown v. Bowen, 845 F.2d 1211, 1213 (3d Cir. 1988); see also Berry v. Sullivan, 738 F.Supp. 942, 944 (W.D. Pa. 1990) (if supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's decision must be affirmed, as a federal court may neither reweigh the evidence, nor reverse, merely because it would have decided the claim differently) (citing Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 705 (3d Cir. 1981)).[1]

         Therefore, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 11) is DENIED and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 13) is GRANTED.



[1] Plaintiff argues, in essence, that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred by: (1) failing to find that Plaintiff's impairments meet the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the “Listings”) at Step Three of the sequential analysis; (2) failing to order consultative evaluations, thereby failing to develop the record; (3) improperly disregarding the medical opinion of Plaintiff's treating health care provider; (4) improperly evaluating Plaintiff's subjective complaints of pain, thereby erring in making his residual functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment; and (5) improperly disregarding the testimony of the vocational expert (“VE”) and relying on an incomplete hypothetical question. The Court disagrees and finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's findings as well as his ultimate determination, based on all the evidence presented, of Plaintiff's non-disability.

First, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in finding that Plaintiff's impairments do not meet the severity of Listing 12.05(C) at Step Three of the sequential analysis. The Court notes that the Listings operate as a regulatory device used to streamline the decision-making process by identifying claimants whose impairments are so severe that they may be presumed to be disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1525(a), 416.925(a). Because the Listings define impairments that would prevent a claimant from performing any gainful activity-not just substantial gainful activity-the medical criteria contained in the Listings are set at a higher level than the statutory standard for disability. See Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 532 (1990). Thus, a claimant has the burden of proving a presumptively disabling impairment by presenting medical evidence that meets all of the criteria of a listed impairment or is equal in severity to all of the criteria for the most similar listed impairment. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1526, 416.926.

In this case, the ALJ explained in his decision that Plaintiff's impairments had been evaluated under Listing 12.05, which deals with intellectual disability. (R. 21). The ALJ noted that paragraph C of that listing requires a “valid verbal, performance, or full scale IQ of 60 through 70 and a physical or other mental impairment imposing an additional and significant work-related limitation of function; i.e., there must be another severe impairment or combination of severe impairments.” (R. 22 (emphasis in original)). Upon review of the evidence of record, however, the ALJ found that although Plaintiff's “I.Q. scores . . . fall within the parameters of paragraph C, there is no other severe impairment(s) of record.” (R. 22). Therefore, the ALJ found that the requirements of paragraph C had not been met. (R. 22). Plaintiff asserts that his seizure disorder, his alleged back and knee disorders, his obesity, and additional mental health disorders should have been found to be additional severe impairments at this step in the inquiry, which would have led to a finding that he is disabled.

The Social Security regulations provide that “[f]or paragraph C, we will assess the degree of functional limitation the additional impairment(s) imposes to determine if it significantly limits your physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, i.e., is a ‘severe' impairment(s), as defined in §§ 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c).” 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, § 12.00(A). In order to be considered at Step 2, an impairment must be a medically determinable impairment established by signs and clinical findings from an acceptable medical source. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1513(a), 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.913(a), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An impairment may not be established on the basis of symptoms alone. See SSR 16-3p, 2016 WL 1119029, at *2 (Mar. 16, 2016). Additionally, a severe impairment must be severe for a continuous period of at least 12 months. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509, 1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.909, 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Finally, the claimant bears the burden of production and persuasion at Step 2. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987).

With regard to Plaintiff's seizure disorder, as the ALJ pointed out, the medical records indicate that Plaintiff had not experienced any seizures since January 2008, 2½ years before the relevant period began (and that he had denied having had seizures for close to 10 years). (R. 20). The ALJ also noted that Plaintiff's prescription for Depakote apparently controlled his seizures well, and that his records indicated his seizure disorder was “stable” and “controlled” throughout the relevant period. (R. 20). Substantial evidence therefore supports the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff's seizure disorder was not severe.

As for Plaintiff's alleged back and knee disorders, although Plaintiff testified to experiencing back and knee pain, no doctor diagnosed him with a back or knee disorder, no clinical findings supporting any such disorders exist in the record, and no diagnostic testing was done or recommended. (R. 19). Rather, the clinical findings regarding Plaintiff's back and knees were normal. (R. 19). Although Plaintiff complained of back or knee pain to his care providers on 3 occasions, the record indicates that he much more frequently denied experiencing any such pain. (R. 20). Although Plaintiff testified that he occasionally took narcotic pain medication, the treatment notes contain no record of a prescription for such medication. (R. 20). Finally, no medical or other source assessed any functional limitations regarding Plaintiff's back or knees. (R. 20). Therefore, substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff's alleged back and knee disorders were not severe impairments.

Regarding Plaintiff's obesity, the ALJ noted that no physician of record had tied Plaintiff's musculoskeletal complaints to his obesity. (R. 20). The ALJ also explained that Plaintiff testified to having pain, but his medical records more often showed Plaintiff denying pain to his care providers. (R. 20). The ALJ further noted that Plaintiff was not receiving any narcotic pain prescriptions, physical therapy or pain management therapy. (R. 20). He had not been referred to any specialist, nor had any medical source of record imposed any functional limitations due to his obesity. (R. 20). Thus, substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff's obesity was not a severe impairment.

Finally, although the ALJ noted that Plaintiff had testified that he might have been depressed, Plaintiff did not require any mental health treatment during the relevant period and he routinely denied depression to his treatment providers. (R. 24-25). Rather, upon review of the evidence, Plaintiff's treatment records show, among other things, that he had normal mood and affect with no evidence of depression or anxiety, was well-groomed, had good eye contact, normal attention, normal thought form and content, normal concentration, and intact judgment and insight. Substantial evidence therefore supports the ALJ's findings that did not include other mental disorders as additional impairments.

Accordingly, the Court concludes that the ALJ did not err in finding that Plaintiff did not have an additional severe impairment in accordance ...

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